PLANT CITY — Saturday morning, before the fog lifted and the chilly air began to warm, a handful of hikers and horseback riders headed for Hillsborough County’s newest and largest preserve.
They planted long-leaf pine trees and wire grass, hiked and rode the new trails on the former Cone Ranch and gazed down into the oak-shaded tannic waters of Itchepackesassa Creek.
Beginning Saturday, Hillsborough’s Lower Green River Swamp Nature Preserve officially opened to the public from sunrise to sunset daily, including holidays. The passive recreation area is accessible only by foot and horseback, but for those who go the finds are plentiful.
Lower Green Swamp is “all about hiking, horseback riding, bird study and really, any natural resource-based recreation,” said Ross Dickerson, general manager of the county’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP. He ticked off a list of wildlife that visitors might encounter.
Bobcats, glossy ibis, deer and eastern bluebirds live on the 12,800 acres of pine flatwoods and marshes tucked among pastures and farm fields north of Plant City. Gopher tortoise, black indigo snakes, wood storks and ducks share the space once used extensively for cattle grazing.
The preserve was obtained from the Hillsborough County Water Department and is under the management of ELAPP. Property bought and managed through the program is funded by taxpayers through a special tax that repeatedly has been approved by voters.
“It’s a wonderful place and a wonderful place to ride,” said Corky Findley, an equestrian from Plant City. She and friends from the Triple B Riding Club have enjoyed trail rides on the property several times already.
Tampa friends Julie and Steve Labedz and Amanda Rotella helped plant pine seedlings before heading out for a hike Saturday. “I read about this place in the Native Plant Society newsletter and wanted to check it out,” Rotella said.
“It’s a new place to see the trails and check out the birds,” Julie Labedz added. “We try to be regular hikers, but we don’t get out as much as we’d like, so this was a good opportunity.”
They aren’t the first volunteers to get out on the preserve. Between 1991 and 1995, the East Tampa Rotary Club undertook what was called the Rotary Forest Cone Ranch Million Tree Farm, a sustainable tree plantation that involved the planting of a million pine seedings, said Mark Brown, manager of the Northeast ELAPP preserves.
Some of the trees have been harvested or died, leaving bare spots on the property. ELAPP Volunteer Coordinator Sherri Wilson said she will set up volunteer planting opportunities in the future.
Already the county has blocked off ditches used to drain the property for cattle grazing, recreating more wetlands, Dickerson said. And as the years roll on, the ELAPP staff will keep working to restore the land to a more natural state. Where planted pines have been culled and ditches blocked, Dickerson said, the former ranch already is beginning to look more like nature intended.